Whilst hydrological systems can show resilience to short-term streamflow deficiencies during within-year droughts, prolonged deficits during multi-year droughts are a significant threat to water resources security in Europe. This study uses a threshold-based objective classification of regional hydrological drought to qualitatively examine the characteristics, spatio-temporal evolution and synoptic climatic drivers of multi-year drought events in 1962–64, 1975–76 and 1995–97, on a European scale but with particular focus on the UK. Whilst all three events are multi-year, pan-European phenomena, their development and causes can be contrasted. The critical factor in explaining the unprecedented severity of the 1975–76 event is the consecutive occurrence of winter and summer drought. In contrast, 1962–64 was a succession of dry winters, mitigated by quiescent summers, whilst 1995–97 lacked spatial coherence and was interrupted by wet interludes. Synoptic climatic conditions vary within and between multi-year droughts, suggesting that regional factors modulate the climate signal in streamflow drought occurrence. Despite being underpinned by qualitatively similar climatic conditions and commonalities in evolution and characteristics, each of the three droughts has a unique spatio-temporal signature. An improved understanding of the spatio-temporal evolution and characteristics of multi-year droughts has much to contribute to monitoring and forecasting capability, and to improved mitigation strategies.

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